China WFOE complianceWhen I was in high school, a friend got a job at a liquor store, and was often asked to work there by himself. Soon enough, word got around and (human) nature took its course, as the store became extremely popular with a certain segment of the school. My friend hadn’t sought or even anticipated this sort of attention; he was 16 years old and just wanted some extra cash. But when the store got cited for multiple infractions, it came as no surprise to anyone. As my friend observes to this day, “What sort of business owner lets a teenager run a liquor store by himself?”

I was reminded of this story when I read the news that Disney had terminated Meng Dekai, International Special Project Director in China, upon discovering that he had signed numerous unauthorized deals for new Disney projects in provincial cities that few people outside China have ever heard of, including Zhengzhou, Hefei, and Baotou.

Meng had been at this since at least 2009, and in addition to signing deals on behalf of Disney, it came out that Meng had also formed a number of companies with names similar to Disney’s Chinese name and registered a number of trademarks that were similar to those registered by Disney.

It’s unclear what Meng’s master plan was. Yes, Disney knockoffs are rampant in China, notwithstanding the Chinese government’s one-year campaign (tied to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland last year) specifically designed to combat counterfeit Disney products. But it’s one thing to sell knockoff Mickey Mouse backpacks at a mall in Nanchang, where you could clear out in a day if you had to. It’s quite another to build and operate a theme park. Even if Meng received massive kickbacks from the local governments, it’s hard to imagine how he expected to get away with this. It’s also hard to understand why government officials of these lesser-known cities bought the snake oil Meng was selling.

When the China practice group at my firm saw this story, we just shook our heads ruefully, because this is the same problem, writ large, that we see all the time when companies go to China. Once companies have established a presence in China (e.g., a WFOE), a foundational question is: how are they actually going to do business in China, and who will have the authority to act on their behalf?

We regularly conduct audits of firms’ China operations, and the disconnect between the parent company and the WFOE can be shocking. We regularly turn up everything from FCPA violations to employees who cannot be terminated because they were engaged without written contracts to company seals that have been missing for years. And pretty much once a month, we hear from an American or a European company that has just learned (usually via an anonymous email) that one of its employees (usually a trusted senior employee) is secretly operating a competing business on the side. Sometimes though there’s no bad intent on behalf of the Chinese employees; it’s just that there’s no clear oversight and they are operating the “Chinese way.” This is a recipe for disaster, even under the best circumstances. And if you’ve got someone untrustworthy holding the reins in China, things can go from bad to worse in a hurry. See also China Compliance: Don’t Rely on Your China Staff and China Compliance: Don’t Rely on your China Staff, Part II.

Many foreign companies are in a quandary because of personnel or geography or both: they want to have one of “their” people managing operations on the ground, but none of “their” people are willing and/or knowledgeable enough to move to China. And so they end up delegating authority to a Chinese employee who is unprepared and/or unwilling to manage the operations in accordance with the parent company’s wishes.

It’s an awkward situation, and made worse by the quirks of Chinese corporate law, which require every WFOE to decide three things:

  1. the identity of the legal representative, a person with the ability and obligation to act on behalf of the WFOE;
  1. the identity of the general manager, a person who is in charge of the WFOE’s day-to-day operations; and
  1. the location of the company seal, a physical artifact that makes a document legally binding on the WFOE.

The most efficient solution is to appoint a single person as the legal representative and general manager, and have that person be resident in China and in possession of the seal. But this solution places a tremendous amount of authority with a single person, and many foreign companies are understandably reluctant to do so unless they have someone in China that they trust implicitly. As a result, the typical solution is that the legal representative is an employee of the parent company who lives outside China but is tasked with overseeing Chinese operations, the general manager is a Chinese national who lives in China, and the seal is held by a trusted third party in China like an accountant. Yes, it’s as inefficient as it sounds, but it’s usually better than the alternatives. Many of these problems have their genesis when the WFOE is formed without any legal advice on how to handle (and mitigate) these three decisions.

I don’t know what sort of contracts Mr. Meng signed on behalf of Disney, but they better hope he didn’t have access to the company seal and wasn’t the legal representative of the Disney entity he was representing. Right now, this story is just bad publicity, but it may end up costing them millions. And (because every good China Law Blog post ends with a moral) it’s also an instructive story for every company operating in China. How much do you really know about what’s going on in your Chinese office?

China entertainment lawyesSeveral stories came out this past week reporting on the recent failure of Chinese investments in Hollywood. Wanda’s highly publicized purchase of Dick Clark Productions, long rumored to be on the rocks, has fallen through for good, because Wanda paid only $25 million out of the $1 billion purchase price. Paramount’s deal with Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group is foundering because Paramount hasn’t seen a red cent of the promised $1 billion. And more than a few people doubt whether Recon Holding’s $100 million deal to purchase 51% of Millenium Pictures will close.

Most – okay, all – of the lawyers who deal with China on a regular basis saw this coming from a mile away. Some context:

  1. Hollywood deals fall apart all the time. It’s the nature of the business, and hardly unique to Chinese-invested projects. But those deals have been getting more attention lately because so much of the money coming in is from China.
  1. Chinese investors have developed a not-completely-undeserved reputation as “tourist investors,” particularly when it comes to Hollywood: arriving with great fanfare, taking meetings with players across town, kicking the tires of every studio and production company that may be interested in Chinese investment (which is to say, every studio and production company in Hollywood), suggesting that a deal might be imminent … and then going back to China without agreeing to anything. See China Business Deals: What China Business Deal and China MOU. Like I Really Care.
  1. Because the Chinese yuan is a regulated currency, it’s always been difficult to get money out of China. We’ve been writing about this for a while, and in fact almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post in which I said, “Long story short, we can expect to see more US-China film deals fall through for lack of funding, and it won’t necessarily be the fault of the Chinese company.” Then my colleague Mathew Alderson wrote a three-part series of blog posts during the summer, followed by Dan Harris’ own five-part series in December. Chinese film companies are simply not free to do whatever they want with their own money; the government gets to decide.
  1. Chinese regulators are clamping down on any foreign investment deals, both because of the hundreds of billions of dollars leaving the country as capital flight, and because as a policy matter China wants to discourage “inefficient, uncreative Chinese companies that are simply achieving growth through acquisition.” Add to that increased scrutiny from U.S. politicians, and it’s not exactly Springtime for Renminbi.

Hollywood can bemoan the spigot being turned off, but there wasn’t nearly as much money coming in as was previously thought. It’s still not impossible to get money out of China, but you should say goodbye to buying sprees by Chinese companies snapping up Hollywood assets for no other reason than to convert their currency (cf: the scrapped sale of Voltage Pictures to Chinese metals company Anhui Xinke New Materials).

In light of the new reality, here are some tips on how everyone from studios to production companies to producers should proceed:

  1. Require the Chinese counterparty to pay a nontrivial amount of money upfront, and don’t begin performance until you receive it. If your contract doesn’t pass muster with Chinese regulators, you need to know as soon as possible. Your not receiving the upfront money is a really good sign that the deal itself will never work.
  1. If your deal is with a Chinese company with no presence in the U.S., don’t negotiate or draft it like a typical Hollywood deal. We review entertainment agreements all the time that are in English, governed by California law, and enforceable via arbitration or litigation in Los Angeles – and therefore virtually unenforceable against the Chinese party. You need an agreement written in Chinese, governed by Chinese law, and enforceable in Chinese courts. Do not fall into the trap of believing that because your counterpart Chinese company appears to have a tiny U.S. affiliate company that setting up your dispute for U.S. court resolution will work, because it almost certainly will not.
  1. Instead of fixating on money that your Chinese partner can transfer to the US to finance your slate of American films, start thinking about money that your Chinese partner can spend in China. Perhaps that means a shift toward co-productions in China. It might also mean more deals like the one for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – ostensibly a buyout, but with profit participation for the production company.
  1. Consider forming a WFOE in China and having it becoming a profit center. China generally has no problem with WFOEs remitting money to their parent companies once all of the WFOE’s taxes have been paid.

It would be a mistake to assume this is just a temporary hiccup and that Chinese companies will be back investing huge amounts in Hollywood in a few months. China still has a ton of money, but for the foreseeable future, the money is staying in China.

China copyright lawsFormally, China’s copyright laws have been in line with those of the United States and other developed countries since China became a signatory to the Berne Convention in 1992 and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in 2001. But it’s hardly news that you can get a pirated copy of pretty much any movie, CD, or book in China with only a modicum of effort. Years ago you could find bootleg DVDs outside nearly every supermarket and mall in the country. Nowadays it’s more difficult to find such sellers, but not because of China’s efforts to curtail counterfeit goods; it’s because the market has moved to the Internet.

But as China’s homegrown media companies like Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent continue to pay serious money for the rights to stream tv shows, movies, and other copyrighted material, more lawsuits are being filed in Chinese courts seeking to enforce China’s copyright law, and more official efforts are underway to reduce the amount of pirated material available in China. A (slightly) more subtle form of copyright infringement is still thriving, however: creative works that coopt key elements from copyrighted material, from storylines to characters to music cues and beyond. Television shows in China will make a few slight changes to a copyrighted format and then insist it is an entirely new creation, as with The Voice of China last year. It’s not always clearly a copyright dodge, either; the popular Chinese singing competition I Am a Singer (我是歌手) is an official licensee of a copyrighted  Korean format – or was, until the title and format were altered recently in the midst of China’s unofficial restrictions on Korean content. Presumably it is no longer considered a Korean-content show, which as a side benefit probably means the show cannot be held liable for copyright infringement.

Chinese manufacturers have long excelled at taking the key elements of an existing product and incorporating them into a “new” product. So it’s no surprise that the same thing happens in entertainment. It’s been happening for decades with the most famous story in China, the 16th century novel “Journey to the West,” which has been adapted into a movie or tv series dozens of times. We complain in America about the overwhelming number of sequels and superhero movies, but at least most of them have a different plot. This would be like having one of our greatest stories – you know, like Point Break – remade multiple times in different formats every year for forty years.

It’s important to understand, however, that Chinese law prohibits the unauthorized use of a copyrighted work, or elements thereof, unless such use falls under one of the twelve specific exceptions listed in Article 22 of China’s Copyright Law:

(1) personal use;

(2) “appropriate” quotation in order to introduce, comment on, or explain;

(3) media use to report current events;

(4) republishing or rebroadcasting of another media entity’s story;

(5) publishing or broadcasting a public speech;

(6) translation or reproduction of a scientific work solely for use in teaching or research;

(7) use by a government entity “to a justifiable extent for the purpose of fulfilling its official duties”;

(8) reproduction of a work in its collections by a library, museum, etc. for display or preservation purposes;

(9) a free live performance;

(10) copying, drawing, photographing or video-recording a public artwork;

(11) translation of a Chinese citizen’s work from Mandarin into a Chinese minority language, for distribution in China; and

(12) transliteration of a published work into braille for publication.

The above exceptions are similar to the American concept of “fair use,” a doctrine that allows for unlicensed use of copyrighted material under certain conditions.

Although not always interpreted consistently, China’s fair use exceptions are quite limited. When you’re watching a Chinese reality show and hear a dozen music cues lifted from American pop songs, that’s not fair use. When you’re watching a Chinese television show that seems exactly like Mad About You, that’s not fair use either. That leaves copyright infringement (the former) and legal licensing of a copyrighted format (the latter).

As the value of copyrighted material in China increases, it’s increasingly important to take a broader view of IP protection. Licensing TV shows to China is a big and growing business. Anti-piracy efforts are still important, but it’s even more important to have a properly drafted license agreement. And to take legal action when you find another media company using your copyrighted material. If you don’t protect your own IP, who will?

China IP LawyersA few days ago the invaluable China Film Insider ran a piece about how American cable powerhouse Home Box Office is trying to stop the Wuxi, China-based HBO Studio Restaurant & Bar from using the HBO name without permission. But this movie-themed restaurant has every right to its name. As of 2013, it has owned a trademark registration for “HBO” in Class 43 for restaurant services.

HBO is perhaps emboldened by the recent, well-publicized victories of Donald Trump and Michael Jordan, who triumphed after years attempting to wrest “their” trademarks away from trademark squatters. Or by the judicial interpretation released by the Supreme People’s Court last month describing how China was going to take a stricter stance against trademark squatters.

But even if the Trump and Jordan decisions are harbingers of a new trend in protecting well-known marks, brand owners like HBO need to understand the limits of such rulings. Michael Jordan and Donald Trump only won partial victories. The trademark squatters’ rights were only invalidated with respect to those products or services for which Jordan and Trump were already famous. For Jordan: sporting goods. For Trump: construction services. Notably, the decision by the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board (TRAB) that paved the way for Trump to register “TRUMP” for construction services left intact the trademark squatter’s right to use “TRUMP” for mining and drilling services. Because, presumably, Trump was unable to show that “TRUMP” was well-known for those services.

In the HBO Studio Restaurant matter, Home Box Office faces two big problems. First of all, HBO is not well-known in China in ANY context. Until 2014, when HBO signed a streaming deal with Tencent, the only place you could legally watch HBO in China was in high-end hotels that catered to foreigners. And HBO’s brand awareness in China hasn’t exactly taken off since then. A few months ago, Chinese actor Cao Jun, the star of the HBO Asia original production “Master of the Drunken Fist: Beggar So,” admitted to knowing very little about HBO. Frankly, HBO would have difficulty invalidating ANY trademark on the basis of being a well-known mark in China. But in this case, they have to climb an even steeper hill. They need to prove that the “HBO” name is well-known with respect to restaurant services. And that is almost certainly not going to happen. In the alternative, HBO could argue that the Wuxi restaurant’s trademark was filed in bad faith, but China has been unwilling to invalidate trademarks on this basis except in the case of marks filed by serial trademark squatters and former business partners.

Don’t get me wrong: this restaurant has shamelessly coopted the HBO name in their entertainment-themed Western restaurant, and the restaurant owner’s complaints on its Weibo account about being bullied for no reason by a big American company have the air of protesting too much. But HBO’s strategy is almost certain to fail, because the Wuxi restaurant has superior rights under Chinese trademark law.

It appears HBO has already been down this road before; they had filed an application on March 28, 2014 to cover Class 43 services (including restaurant services), but were rejected for everything but renting cooking equipment, renting drinking fountains, and renting non-theater, non-tv studios. The basis for the rejection is not publicly available, but it is almost certainly because the Wuxi restaurant had filed its trademark application first. I note that on June 6, 2016, HBO filed a new application for Class 43 services, apparently hoping for a different outcome on their second try. I wish them well, but am going to assume that they have a Plan B.

HBO’s better strategy would have been to quietly approach this restaurant and offer to buy the trademark. Maybe HBO already tried that and failed.

I took a quick look and there are dozens of registrations for “HBO” in China, covering all manner of goods and services. And most of them aren’t owned by Home Box Office. That’s a lot of invalidations and appeals to file. Good news for China IP lawyers, but not good news for HBO. Although HBO can take heart from one thing: HBO Studio Restaurant & Bar has a high rating on Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp.

To reiterate: the recent trend in Chinese trademark jurisprudence to protect well-known marks is heartening, but only extends to those goods or services for which brands are already well-known. If you want to protect your mark for other goods and services, you need to file in a broader range of classes before anyone else.

China media and entertainment lawOur Beijing-based entertainment attorney, Mathew Alderson, will be speaking on a panel at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles on January 19th. The panel is entitled “China and Hollywood: Distribution and Censorship in a Cross-Pacific Partnership“.

Mathew’s panel is part of the Southwestern Law School’s 14th Annual Media Law Conference, whose theme this year is: Keeping the Beat in a Crazy Year: Blurred Lines and Border Crossings.

Mathew’s panel will focus on how to work within China’s legal system on new productions and on how to deal with the unique challenges China presents when doing productions there. The event will be moderated by Covington’s Nicholas Francescon. The other panelists will be J. Martin Willhite, General Counsel and COO of Legendary Pictures, and Sheri Jeffrey from Hogan Lovells. The Conference is presented by the Biederman Entertainment and Media Law Institute and the Media Law Resource Centre.

If you are interested in China media and entertainment law or media and entertainment law generally (particularly IP law), you should go. The conference runs from 1 pm until 7 pm, with the post-event reception scheduled to last until 8 p.m. Go to this link to register.

We hope to see you there.

China Attorneys

Because of this blog, our China lawyers get a fairly steady stream of China law questions from readers, mostly via emails but occasionally via blog comments as well. If we were to conduct research on all the questions we get asked and then comprehensively answer them, we would become overwhelmed. So what we usually do is provide a super fast general answer and, when it is easy to do so, a link or two to a blog post that may provide some additional guidance. We figure we might as well post some of these on here as well. On Fridays, like today.

We are often asked questions along the lines of “Where can I go to find out more about ________” When this question relates to Chinese law, we are rarely able to help because our China attorneys do their legal research in Chinese. And when the question is about something other than Chinese law, our China attorneys are rarely able to help because, well, we focus on Chinese law.

But earlier this week I received an email from one of our movie clients asking me if I was aware of where she might be able to find good writings on China’s movie and entertainment industry and, shockingly enough, I was because earlier in the week I had been reading Bridging the Dragon’s website. “Bridging the Dragon is an association connecting European and Chinese film industries” and its website maintains the following really sweet list and amazingly comprehensive list of “Useful Links” relevant to the China movie and entertainment industry:

Asia TV Forum & Market

Asian Film Market

Asian Movie Pulse

Beijing International Film Festival

Box Office Mojo China

China Film Biz

China Film Co-Production Corporation

China Film Insider

The CFI Guide to Film Production in China

China Law Blog — Hey, that’s us!

Chinese Films

Chinese Literature in Translation – Paper Republic

Entgroup

Film Business Asia

HKIFF Society

Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum

SAPPRFT

Screen Asia

Shanghai International Film Festival

Young’s China Business Blog

I am not aware of any China relevant movie/entertainment sites missing from this list, but if you are, please let us all know in a comment below.

China entertainment lawyerChina’s long-awaited Film Promotion Law was enacted by the Standing Committee of the PRC National People’s Congress on November 7, 2016 and is set to take effect on March 1, 2017. We last wrote about the Film Promotion Law when China’s National People’s Congress issued a draft for public comment in November 2015. The newly enacted Law does not differ markedly from the earlier draft. Below is a list of the main differences by reference to Article numbering:

1. Purpose — In addition to promoting the film industry, the purpose of the Law has been broadened to include promoting socialist core values and regulating film market “order”.

2. Streaming — Existing laws applicable to streaming of motion pictures on the Internet, telecommunication networks and radio networks will continue to apply.

5. National development plans — The State Council is to incorporate the development of the film industry into national economic and social development plans.

9. “Socialist core values” for cast & crew — Actors, directors and other professionals in the film industry must not only possess high artistic skill but also abide by socialist core values, social moral standards and professional ethics codes, comply with the law and build an excellent social image.

14. Confirmation of national treatment for official co-pros — This is a reiteration of the existing policy that co-productions meeting the ratio requirements with respect to creation, funding, profit distribution will be treated as motion pictures produced by domestic PRC legal entities.

15. Motion picture production license requirement deleted — Originally, a “film production license” requirement was imposed. Enterprises or organizations that had the appropriate personnel, funds and other resources were expressly entitled to engage in film production activities provided they received approval from the relevant film authorities at the provincial level.

18. Panel of “experts” — Reviews for production and exhibition approval will involve at least five experts. The draft Law did not specify the number of experts. A definition of “expert” is not provided. Experts will be selected from an “expert pool,” having regard to a picture’s theme. Specific measures on expert selection are to be promulgated by the relevant department of the State Council.

19. Second review process — If a picture’s content needs to be changed after a public release license has been obtained the film must go through a second review process. The draft Law provided that a public release license was to have been obtained after the second review process but the new Law deleted this requirement.

22. “Hurtful” or “harmful” business activities banned — Citizens, legal persons, and other organizations may undertake business activities that include the printing, processing, post-production of foreign films and must file with the relevant film administration department at the provincial level. What must be “filed” is not specified. Any business activities in connection with foreign films that contain content that could hurt PRC national dignity, honor and interests, social stability or ethnic unity will not be allowed.

29. “Reasonable arrangement” of screening times — In addition to making sure the total length of films produced by domestic legal persons/organizations is no less than 2/3 of the total length of all of the films released in a given year, movie theaters must also “reasonably arrange” the times and screenings when such films are being released.

31. In-theater anti-piracy — When theater personnel find someone is illegally recording a film, not only can they stop such behavior (as in the draft Law) they can also demand that such content be deleted and can ask those to leave immediately if they refuse to obey.

37. Stronger audit powers — The government is to “strengthen” audits of the use of funds in the film industry.

All up, the law is apparently intended to simplify the regulation of screenplays, film productions and exhibitions and the holding of foreign-related film festivals. There are no fundamental changes to the existing regulatory framework as it affects foreigners. Foreigners will still be prevented from engaging independently in film production in China. Foreigners will still be prevented from engaging in film distribution in China. No mention is made of any lifting of the quota on importing foreign films on a revenue-sharing basis. Still, many of the changes should streamline the official co-production process for foreign producers. There is also now express official recognition of the need for improvements in the system of film finance and the need for tax incentives for local producers.

China copyrightCopyright is an essential part of any substantive IP protection plan in China, but many companies fail to take an extremely important step: registering their copyrights in China. One of the most common misconceptions our China lawyers frequently hear is that copyright registration in China is optional, because you do not have to file anything to have a valid copyright in China.

Like so many China misconceptions, this one has an element of truth to it. As a signatory to the Berne Convention, China has the same basic definition of what is protected under copyright as the 171 other Convention parties: an original creative work that exists in a fixed medium. A “creative work” could be anything from a video game, song, or toy to a database, map, or product design. A songwriter in Nashville, a programmer in Auckland, a furniture designer in Helsinki: all of their creative works are protected by copyright at the time they complete the work in question, and that copyright is just as valid in China as it is in the U.S., New Zealand, and Finland. But there’s a big difference between having a valid copyright in China and having an enforceable copyright in China.

In most situations, the key issue is one of proof. A copyright registration in China is presumptive evidence of ownership, and in some situations it’s the only evidence that is acceptable. Whether you’re trying to take down an infringing video on Youku Tudou or an infringing photograph of your product on Alibaba, have counterfeit dolls seized at Customs, or sue a publisher who is selling your book without permission, a certificate issued by the Copyright Protection Centre of China (CPCC) is the easiest and most efficient way to enforce your rights. And copyright registration is almost always a prerequisite to getting royalty payments from Chinese entities that have licensed copyrighted material.

Meanwhile, if you are trying to prove ownership of a creative work and you don’t have a Chinese copyright registration, it could take weeks or even months – and that assumes a clear, well-documented chain of title. If you’re at the point where you need to enforce a copyright to stop infringement, it’s almost certainly going to be time-sensitive.

China’s copyright registration process is fairly straightforward, and it does not involve substantive examination at the time of registration, but it usually takes a couple months to receive a copyright certificate. In our experience, when our clients have China copyright certificates we usually secure takedowns of infringing materials relatively quickly and easily. But without a copyright certificate, takedowns take considerably longer and sometimes they do not happen at all.

Don’t get caught flat-footed. If you have copyrightable IP that you want to protect in China, register it with the CPCC. Now.

China AttorneysBecause of this blog, our China lawyers get a fairly steady stream of China law questions from readers, mostly via emails but occasionally via blog comments as well. If we were to conduct research on all the questions we get asked and then comprehensively answer them, we would become overwhelmed. So what we usually do is provide a super fast general answer and, when it is easy to do so, a link or two to a blog post that may provide some additional guidance. We figure we might as well post some of these on here as well. On Fridays, like today.

Our China attorneys are often asked some version of the following question:

I’m making a low-budget independent movie set in China. Can I just take my cast and crew to Xi’an on tourist visas and film a movie without bothering with permits?

Our answer:

It is illegal for foreigners to engage in film production in China by themselves. Full stop. Guerrilla filmmaking may have a certain romantic appeal, but things get a lot less romantic when viewed through the bars of a prison cell. Or when you lose all your footage and equipment and have to pay a substantial fine. Maybe you’ll get away with it, but is it really worth putting you, your cast, and your crew in harm’s way? Independent films may be inherently risky, but that’s because most of them lose money, not because making the movie is dangerous. Unless you’re making a movie with Werner Herzog in the Amazon. (When Klaus Kinski is in the mix, all bets are off.)

Note also that although changes have been proposed to the laws and regulations governing film production in China, those changes will not change anything about foreigners seeking to film in China.

China IPPreviously on China Law Blog…

In Part 1 of this three-part series, we discussed the background of the Talpa-Canxing dispute over The Voice of China. Now we’ll see what happened after Canxing broke Talpa’s heart.

Undeterred by Talpa finding a new licensee, Canxing announced that it would keep producing a singing show. The format would be different, Canxing claimed, but the name would be virtually the same: The Voice of China 2016 and 2016中国好声音. Because – surprise! – Canxing’s distribution partner Zhejiang Television was the registered owner of the 中国好声音 trademark.

Talpa sought a preliminary arbitral award in Hong Kong against STAR Group Limited, Canxing’s Hong Kong affiliate. But the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) denied Talpa’s request (at least insofar as it pertained to the Chinese name) because Talpa had no rights to the Chinese name. Did we mention that Talpa should have registered the Chinese-language trademark?

More or less at the same time, Tangde filed suit in a Beijing IP court against Canxing, claiming trademark infringement and unfair competition, and seeking a preliminary injunction. To the surprise of some, on June 20, 2016 the Beijing court ruled in Tangde’s favor insofar as the name of the program, holding that Canxing could not call its program either The Voice of China or 中国好声音. Canxing appealed the ruling, but changed the English name to “Sing! China.” On appeal, Canxing lost again, and complied with the ruling by changing the Chinese name of the show to中国新歌声, which roughly translates as China’s New Singing Voice.

Around June 13, 2016, while all of these legal proceedings were ongoing, SAPPRFT issued a directive curtailing the airing of television programs based on foreign formats. The directive clarified that programs produced in a foreign country (like The Big Bang Theory) and programs based on a foreign format (like The Voice of China) would both be considered foreign content, and that television channels (1) would have to secure prior government approval to air such programs, (2) could only show two foreign content programs during prime time each year, and (3) could only show one new foreign content program each year, and not during prime time in the first year.

On July 15, 2016, the first season of 中国新歌声 began on Zhejiang Television. It had the same judges as last year’s season of中国好声音 and an almost indistinguishable format. As of this writing, the season is about half over, and the main difference appears to be that during the blind audition phase, instead of swiveling 180 degrees, the judges’ chairs slide down a long ramp. Everyone I know who watches the show (including my entire family) agrees it is virtually the same show. And it seems to be as popular as ever, both with the viewing audience and with the sponsors.

The coverage to date has focused on this story as a contract, copyright, and trademark dispute. That’s true enough, and as far as that goes it’s not a particularly noteworthy dispute by Hollywood standards. Indeed, the fact that this dispute is the subject of multiple legal proceedings could even be seen as a sign of China’s maturity as a media market. Twenty years ago, if a Chinese production company copied an American or European television program, no one in the West would have cared (much), because (1) the rights owner would not have had a plausible remedy in China, (2) the Chinese company never would have paid for the rights, and (3) even if it had paid, the amount paid would have been a pittance.

But there’s another story here. By making a few superficial changes to the show and changing the name, Canxing and Zhejiang Television are trying to skirt the restrictions on foreign content. According to them,中国新歌声 is a 100% Chinese content show. Canxing has also stated that it won’t purchase any more foreign formats in the future.

If Canxing and Zhejiang can get away with such copyright infringement — and thus far they have – this becomes a cautionary tale for foreign content owners licensing to China. Chinese companies may still see value in licensing foreign formats, because just copying a show isn’t as easy it looks. Indeed, that’s why Canxing and other Chinese production companies have been paying serious money for the most popular formats. But once they have received the production bible and produced a season or two, what incentive do they have to keep paying a license fee, if they can make a couple changes and call the show 100% Chinese?

It will be interesting to see how (or if) Canxing and Zhejiang Television are held accountable for 中国新歌声. Licensors of content have to look at this case and think seriously about frontloading any payments. They might not get a second bite.

Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion, where I’ll discuss how content owners can better protect themselves when licensing to China to avoid the sort of trainwreck Talpa appears headed for.